This Thing with The Desert: An Interlude

January 20, 2009

If I am to continue this thing of talking about 2008, or really about anything, as it is about me, I’m going to have to stop and tell you about this thing with the desert.

The first time I knew of the Millican Valley was when it tried to kill me. Descriptively, the valley is an ancient lake bed, with an ancient riverbed leaving it from the corner of it nearest to Horse Ridge. It’s nowhere, dry and unloved, and it’s given to expansive vistas and emptiness. I first knew it of studying a USGS Quad map–even at sixteen I, hopeless, knew enough to know the value of USGS quads–a few days after the valley failed at subduing me. In this way, this fight, we became inextricably linked.

Sixteen was not when the overall desert thing started–that happened when I was eleven–but it’s the easiest to understand because things happened then that make memorable tales. I could take several places and start the story: the cruelty of that age, the limping in blizzard conditions, the hypothermia, or something less dramatic. There were teenage boys who drove Dually pickups and cajoled the other girls I was with–trying to camp; it’s hopeless with girls sometimes–that as long as our car wasn’t lowered (it was my car, in so much as you’d call a 1984 Ford Tempo a car) we’d make it to the house–no wait, back up back up.

At sixteen I was both a disaster and an ill-formed adult walking around inexperienced in a strange teenage world that seemed to concern itself with trivia. This is alienating. That is an understatement. I was sixteen and had stopped going to high school because it was useless–did you know that I am a highschool drop-out?–and had my hopes set for higher education although Portland Community College was a wretched joke. So was I bookish? Not exactly. It was much more grim than that. In the modern world there is no space for an overtly independent teenager. Unlike the American novels of the mid-20th century about boys and their horses and perhaps earlier than that Steinbeck tales of the west and the brutality of youth, by the 1990s the American adolescent psyche had gone all mediocre. My heart belonged to a wilder time, perhaps. It didn’t work well. I know I am inept socially now. I was inept socially then. This is our backdrop.

Nonetheless I had some girlfriends I’d glommed onto in my single-digit years who I still had affection for, and we’d decided to go on a camping trip. That’s an easy introduction but what happened was not as elementary.

At one point I was riding a horse, during this time, and it jumped a large log and I was frightened, but then right after that I arrived at the house of the boy who started much of this, though he wasn’t important except in that the road he lived on bore his family’s name. This was some time after the forest fire that burned up to across the road and we’d had to let the horses go run off and hose down the roof. They had come back and seemed unaffected overall. “It’s me,” I said when the boy came out of the house, “just in a different car.”

The log that the horse jumped over was very near the spot that I had walked by the night before, in the moonless pitch, and heard the herd of deer bolt. You couldn’t see them but you could hear the vibrations of their hooves. Deer, horses. I cannot remember if this was before or after R’s father arrived with a shotgun, or whether it was before or after she’d gone through the windshield of one of the boys’ pickups. You lose track.

I also can’t remember if it was before or after I came limping into the silent house at four or five in the morning after I’d nearly died in the Millican Valley. At that time there was no furniture, just a dozen or so teenage lumps in sleeping bags on floors in various bedrooms in the flimsy house. The house had maybe been constructed in the 1980s but was already a strange and derelict place. On the second floor, an exterior door let out onto pure air, twenty feet above the ground. Most of us were still of the age at which any adult-free place seemed heroic, no matter how much squalor. When I came in I poked at one girl who really should have been a good friend. “I’ve been in an accident,” I told her, but she only woke slightly and seemed to consider that I was still alive and went back to sleep. It was alienating. The next day my thigh turned yellow-blue from hip to knee but most of the rest of them probably assumed it was from when I jumped off the roof a few nights before to fight the boys who were shouting insults at us but had instead landed on a chain link face and destroyed the pair of jeans I was wearing. Or was that later?

This was all happening in the desert, but at the edge of things. Someone had a .22; we shot it at buttes. The boys, like I said, had pickups appropriate for the landscape, but were terrible drivers. I did my own driving. There was very little pavement. It was beneficial that my shitheap also happened to be difficult to drive. It had a balky manual transmission that somehow set of an impassioned need for stick shifts that has lasted even until now. None of the other girls could drive it successfully, which was good, since shotgun-father R, who was a bitch, once tried to take it because she wanted it. This is not to say that there was no possibility of depth with my peers. With one boy I crawled through a tiny opening at the end of one of the many lava tube caves and found a small cavern. I was too young to be afraid in such a dark, cold place, and the ground was the softest silt I’d ever encountered. Such fine dust. I moved it through my fingers and found something small and secret: a vertebra from a small mammal.

That same boy made me mad or sad one night and I drove off in the shitheap towards Paulina Crater, rather, though east along Forest Road 10, more Romantically known as China Hat Road. It was March but it had March’s fickleness of weather in those parts: cold and dark early. At that time, China Hat Road went forever and was all gravel. I was a child and stupid and had driven an hour, more, east and nowhere-bound and was stupidly angsty and weak of attention and managed to drive the shitheap off of a curve, more of a thiry-foot embankment, really, a trajectory over sagebrush and juniper, flying, down, with me thinking inanely but clearly: “Well, this is happening” before the impact. It was about eleven or midnight and the dust settled around my car. It was very cold and as I sat there shaking off my adrenaline rush it started to snow. In the trunk were some rags and a flashlight and I stuffed the former into the pockets of my coat–no gloves–and set off. Just back yonder, so my recollection went, I’d seen a sign pointing toward the highway. I set of toward that memory as the world went quiet and snowbound. I was very far from anything.

It took me maybe an hour of dazed shuffling and half-jogging to reach the sign I’d remembered and when I got there it said:


Which at sixteen felt like a rough patch of luck. It would have felt so now, I suppose. Ill-prepared, I headed north toward the highway. It was very dark. Afraid of my batteries, I kept the flashlight off. The road was pale below a couple of inches of snow but there was of course no moon because it was snowing. A few miles later, I was very cold. I kept envisioning the world and the cosmos rising and setting like an astrological wheel, horizon to horizon. Here I was high enough in elevation that there were Ponderosa pines still. Large, ponderous trees, kindly. I felt tired. I started reasoning internally: I will sit here now, in this slight dip below this Ponderosa, and I will take a nap and in a few hours, perhaps, work my way toward the highway. I even sat down a few times under various trees and closed my eyes before some primal panic poked at my lids and forked me up to a standing position. Would that have been my end?

Like some moral, epic poem in which I was either the hero or maybe just the weak and deluded sinner, I came to a fork in the road. Each branch seemed even in the dim snow-world. The wind had kicked up and as the snow fell on my hair and melted it created and icy helmet. I was starting to feel the curling mewl of desperation rise through me. I had to make a choice and I chose the southerly branch. As I traced the foreign word on the USGS map later, Millican, I ran my finger along the northern branch. It went to Andrews’ Well. It went nowhere. It wound around and stopped; the road ended going that way. Would that have been my end?

The trees ended and the valley began in earnest. For a half an hour I walked along the road further, maybe an hour, toward a growing light. Finally I realized it was the moon, rising, beneath the edge of the clouds. It was so bright in contrast to the valley’s nothing that I couldn’t reconcile that it wasn’t man-made. Time spun by. Finally I saw another growing light and walked toward it for ten, twenty minutes. It glared and grew. At last I came to know that it was a vehicle, coming toward me through the snow on the gravel. It was a pickup, what here wasn’t someone’s pickup, and I saw it coming, coming for a long time. When it neared me I turned on my flashlight and screamed and jumped up and down. It drove past me. I screamed louder and started chasing it down the road. Finally it stopped. If it hadn’t, would that have been my end?

It was an old man, driving out toward the mountains, a logger, with his pickup and thermos of coffee and cooler full of sandwiches. An early shift. He was uncomfortable with rescuing me, set awkward by my presence, what parent would let me out like this, but really it was me, not my parents, they were as good of parents as anyone had. Finally he consented to drive me back to my wreck. I don’t know what my plan was but everyone out there is roughly competent and I trusted the man. It was quiet and tense as we drove.

With that peculiarity of random luck, my car, at the bottom of its embankment, wasn’t that badly off. The man had a winch and he pulled the car out across a milder slope further down the road. The car humphed and came to rest again on the gravel of China Hat Road. We both stared at it in that kind of awe you reserve for the truly uncanny. “Well,” he said, “I guess you can drive home?” It was nowhere near light out. “OK,” I said.


Many years later: Star Trails over the Millican Valley

Many years later: Star Trails over the Millican Valley

  1. beeman says:

    Dammit Lyza, some of us have work to do and your engrossing story is not helping.

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